On Trains & Buses

Travel news, views & information from Europe & North America by an independent public transport user

Not taking no for an answer

Posted on October 14, 2009

Reading time: 3 minutes.

With a fine weekend in prospect, the mind turns to getting out and enjoying what’s on offer. In that vein, I tried looking up train times for a return journey between Macclesfield and Harlech, all on the same day with one change in Wolverhampton and maybe another in Machynlleth, only for the National Rail Enquiries website to tell me that it was impossible. The workaround was to look for a single outbound journey and a single return journey, not ideal but I got the information that I needed. While this was a case of curiosity more than anything else, I might be nonplussed if I was after a bargain fare in preference to the standard Off-Peak Return; knowing that such a search would prove fruitless anyway would have meant sticking with a walk on fare so I wasn’t bothered.

While it has come a way since its original incarnation, the episode illustrates that creases still need to be knocked of the National Rail Enquiries journey planning algorithm. When the website first came on the scene, I was left wondering why they couldn’t have used the excellent engine that Network Rail had inherited from Railtrack; it was one of the few things that they got right. It was all the more puzzling when the new planning engine was nowhere near as good as its predecessor. Glitches like not being told about journey options via Wilmslow when engineering work disrupted the normal Sunday services between Macclesfield and Manchester was but one of the inconsistencies.

Of course, any system is only ever as good as the data supplied to it. A striking example of that was the carrot of having an early Sunday morning rail replacement coach to Wilmslow for a day out in Wales. The advised coach service turned out to be a work of fiction so my travel arrangements had to change as did any plans that I had. A good day was enjoyed but not in the way in which I had envisaged it. The same sort of thing may explain the lack of available fares sometimes when there is engineering work ongoing and that between Lockerbie and Edinburgh earlier this year comes to mind.

While I can deal with this and find my way around the rail network anyway or even turn to other journey planning services, what must it all seem to someone who isn’t so savvy? I can see it looking very offputting and that’s a pity because public transport needs all the support that it can get in these leaner times. Taking this further, public transport needs to sell itself better and easier journey planning is part of this. Websites that don’t deliver may not cause someone to pick up a phone or visit their nearest staffed train station but set them to choose to drive or even fly instead, hardly the type of thing that should be happening. The National Rail Enquiries website may have won awards and offer the option to sort out accommodation along with your train ticket but what use is all of this if the journey finding algorithm or the information supplied to it aren’t up to scratch? After all, that’s why people go to the website so both of those need to take precedence over any other fancy features that some might care to add.